Speaker Kevin McCarthy knows he needs to strike a spending deal with the White House to avoid a government closure. He also knows how little political capital he has to spare. | Francis Chung/POLITICO
Speaker Kevin McCarthy has only one way out of next week’s impending government shutdown: working with Democrats. It’s an exit he’s still refusing to take.
During the most tumultuous stretch of his speakership so far, McCarthy hasn’t phoned a single member of the opposing party about a way to keep the lights on.
Instead, the speaker and his team will scramble this weekend to slash their own party’s spending bills in an effort to placate a handful of hard-liners who are threatening to eject him. Votes on some of those revised bills are now expected on Tuesday, four days before the Sept. 30 shutdown deadline. But even if they pass, that will move Congress no closer to a solution.
McCarthy’s central strategy remains the same; he wants to deliver a GOP opening bid to the Democratic Senate, while holding back a rebellion by his right flank — enough to hang on to his speakership after Democrats, by necessity, enter the talks. After his first two attempts at a short-term spending patch fell short, McCarthy is now trying to take up doomed full-year bills.
Some of McCarthy’s own allies fear that effort could prove futile as a shutdown fast approaches. These House Republicans worry that the Californian’s third attempt at a workable strategy, bringing spending measures to the floor next week, might also fail to get the votes they need and further humiliate the party.
“This is not checkers. This is chess. You got to understand that this next move by the House is not going to be the final answer,” Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) said. “Eventually, the Senate will weigh in … and it’s not going to be to our liking, and probably going to be pushed into our face and say: ‘Take it or leave it.’ And then the speaker will have a very difficult decision.”
The situation is getting worse still for McCarthy as he starts running out of room from his Senate allies. A group of conservatives across the Capitol, after days of deferring to the speaker, now want to see a vote on legislation that would automatically impose stopgap spending patches to permanently prevent shutdowns.
The House GOP is taking the opposite tack by resurrecting partisan spending bills that won’t do anything to prevent millions of U.S. workers — including the military and border patrol agents — from soon working without pay. At the same time, leadership is still trying to corral Republicans, so far unsuccessfully, behind passing a short-term conservative spending bill before Oct. 1.
But McCarthy allies also acknowledge the political reality could shift. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) said questions about whether a bipartisan bill could pass in the final 48 hours before a shutdown weren’t yet “timely.”
Yet McCarthy knows he needs to ultimately strike a spending deal with the White House to avoid a government closure. He also knows, given how little political capital he has to spare, that decision could doom his gavel.
Hard-liners like Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) and other loud critics have made it obvious they won’t help dig the speaker out of the spending crisis, and they’re also most likely to trigger the first vote of no-confidence against a party leader in 113 years.
Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) — who cautioned it was too soon to have a speakership discussion — warned that if Republicans worked with Democrats on funding the government “they are switching teams … They are going over to the Democratic side.”
“I understand their concerns. But, look, we are the Republican Party,” Norman added, predicting a shutdown.
Asked about the prospect of Democrats working with Republicans to keep the government open, hard-liner Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) said: “I remain concerned that any member of the Republican Conference would threaten to hijack or take hostage the Republican Conference.”
The stakes are high for House Republicans, who have barely nine months of power under their belts. They’re also 13 months away from an election in which the fate of their threadbare majority will rest on 18 incumbents sitting in turf friendly to President Joe Biden — where, unlike in deep-red districts, compromise to end a crisis is actually popular.
Those Biden-district Republicans’ frustrations with their conservative colleagues have boiled over in recent days, with embattled members like Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.) openly threatening to work with Democrats to force a shutdown-averting measure to the floor. (Their most obvious tool to do so is known as a discharge petition, which is unlikely to solve the immediate spending crisis, though other options remain on the table.)
As their fury builds, more than half a dozen House Republicans from Biden-won districts huddled Thursday in Rep. Anthony D’Esposito’s (R-N.Y.) office to discuss their options to avoid a shutdown, according to two Republicans familiar with the meeting. Those possibilities include working with Democrats.
“If we lose control of Congress over this complete nonsense, we’re going to go from several hundred billion dollars in lost opportunity back to the $5 [trillion] or $10 trillion that we saw the last time the Democrats had control of the House, the Senate and the presidency,” battleground-district Rep. John Duarte (R-Calif.) said as he left that meeting.
“We’re risking the financial sustainability of the United States, because a few guys want to raise money on their social media feeds,” Duarte added in a thinly veiled reference to his ultraconservative colleagues.
But centrists and other rank-and-file Republicans don’t all agree, with several colleagues trying to yank Lawler back from his threats to team up with Democrats.
Centrist Democrats, meanwhile, have begun backchanneling with some McCarthy allies as they attempt to draft a compromise spending measure that could be ready for a vote sometime next week.
“The speaker is well aware that there are Democrats out there who are willing” to help, said one of those centrist Democrats, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about private deliberations.
This Democrat then underscored that the party would be unlikely to rescue McCarthy from a shutdown without concessions.
“Here you have a man fighting for his political life, and the only lifeline would be from Democrats. Why not extract as much as you freakin’ can?”
McCarthy on Friday outlined his own plans for the House’s next steps. Besides votes on leaner individual spending bills that have no chance of becoming law and may lack the votes to pass the House at all, McCarthy said he still wants to take up a Republican short-term funding bill — warning his hard-liners that he doesn’t see how the party triumphs in a shutdown.
“I just believe if you are not funding the troops and you are not funding the border, it’s pretty difficult to think that you’re going to win in a shutdown,” he said. He did not say how he plans to win support in his conference for that 30-day bill.
Hanging over McCarthy is the sword of Damocles known on the Hill as a motion to vacate — a forced vote to end his leadership. Talk of moderate Republicans like Lawler working with Democrats over the heads of hard-line conservatives is increasing interest in that threat.
Nerves are jangling loudly on the right flank, where activists are circulating rumors of what GOP centrists might get from a team-up with Democrats to protect McCarthy. Outside groups are already talking about the circumstances that would lead them to openly push conservatives to force that vote.
And even conservatives working with McCarthy to prevent a shutdown, like Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), are signaling they can’t protect his gavel should the House be forced to accept a Senate-brokered funding bill that lacks any conservative policy changes.
“I do not think,” Roy said, “that would be a wise course of action.”